Simon & Schuster, October 2010
At a secret arms-design contest in Stalin's Soviet Union, army technicians submitted a stubby rifle with a curved magazine. Dubbed the AK-47, it was selected as the Eastern Bloc's standard arm. Scoffed at in the Pentagon as crude and unimpressive, it was in fact a breakthrough—a compact automatic that could be mastered by almost anyone, last decades in the field, and would rarely jam. Manufactured by tens of millions in planned economies, it became first an instrument of repression and then the most lethal weapon of the Cold War. Soon it was in the hands of terrorists.In a searing examination of modern conflict and official folly, C. J. Chivers mixes meticulous historical research, investigative reporting, and battlefield reportage to illuminate the origins of the world's most abundant firearm and the consequences of its spread. The result, a tour de force of history and storytelling, sweeps through the miniaturization and distribution of automatic firepower, and puts an iconic object in fuller context than ever before. The Gun dismantles myths as it moves from the naïve optimism of the Industrial Revolution through the treacherous milieu of the Soviet Union to the inside records of the Taliban. Chivers tells of the 19th-century inventor in Indianapolis who designs a Civil War killing machine, insisting that more-efficient slaughter will save lives. A German attaché who observes British machine guns killing Islamic warriors along the Nile advises his government to amass the weapons that would later flatten British ranks in World War I. In communist Hungary, a locksmith acquires an AK-47 to help wrest his country from the Kremlin's yoke, beginning a journey to the gallows. The Pentagon suppresses the results of firing tests on severed human heads that might have prevented faulty rifles from being rushed to G.I.s in Vietnam. In Africa, a millennial madman arms abducted children and turns them on their neighbors, setting his country ablaze. Neither pro-gun nor anti-gun, The Gun builds to a terrifying sequence, in which a young man who confronts a trio of assassins is shattered by 23 bullets at close range. The man survives to ask questions that Chivers examines with rigor and flair.
Throughout, The Gun animates unforgettable characters—inventors, salesmen, heroes, megalomaniacs, racists, dictators, gunrunners, terrorists, child soldiers, government careerists, and fools. Drawing from years of research, interviews, and from declassified records revealed for the first time, he presents a richly human account of an evolution in the very experience of war.
“C.J. Chivers, a brilliant war correspondent, is an equally capable military historian. By telling the story of a gun--well, not just any gun but arguably 'the' gun--he reveals much about crime, war, and terror, and he does so in convincing and compelling fashion.”—Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers
“Thanks to C. J. Chivers, every G.I. and Marine in Vietnam who threw down his jammed M-16 in despair can trace the development of the better weapon he envied. The Gun is part a biography of Mikhail Kalashnikov and his AK-47, part grim social history and, in all its parts, entirely absorbing.”—A. J. Langguth, Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975
“C. J. Chivers' The Gun does exactly what the best art history or music writing does—it opens our eyes to see anew the familiar. Chivers' reach and scope is syncretic, omnivorous—he is dazzling in his research and reporting. This is a book about connections between people and culture, people and history, nations with nations. Chivers pulls together vast threads of an expanding portrait and what emerges is startling. The Gun is filled with a sense of discovery in the way that John McPhee's work is filled with delight, tribulation, and surprise.”—Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers
“The Gun is for those who wonder how we fight today and why we fight that way. C. J. Chivers has given us a seminal work that will be respected by future generations trying to understand us.”—James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers, Fly Boys, and The Imperial Cruise
“The Gun is a model of research, historical writing, military expertise, and a soldier's ungrudging respect for a weapon that really works.”—Thomas Powers, author of Intelligence Wars
“Succeeds admirably by putting the gun into its social, historical and technological context in an evocative narrative.”—Washington Post
“One of the finest war correspondents of his generation…”—The Wilson Quarterly
“For disciplined and devoted scholars of the history of modern war, politics and ideology, and how the automatic weapon has forced the transformation of the essence of combat… a colossal effort… appears to have created a history-laced masterpiece.”—Marine Corps Gazette
“A compelling perspective on 20th century warfare...”—Slate.com
“[Chivers] tells the AK-47's story as a Tolstoyan epic...”—Time